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Pope welcomes former Swiss Vatican Guards

The former Swiss Guards were celebrated in style at Acquapendente in Latium swissinfo.ch

Pope Benedict XVI has given a blessing to about 70 former Swiss Papal Guards who arrived at the Vatican on Thursday after an almost month-long trek from Switzerland.

This content was published on May 4, 2006 - 21:57

The guards, the oldest a 76-year-old, were re-enacting a march completed by the first members of the papal protectors 500 years ago.

Pope Benedict praised the troops of the "world's smallest army" for offering their lives to defend the Vatican City, the world's smallest state. Today there are 110 Guards.

The marchers had received warm applause along the way to their final destination, including a cheering welcome in the central square of historic Rome, the Piazza del Popolo.

"In some ways you can feel the emotions that the first 150 Swiss Guards felt as they reached the Eternal City on January 21, 1506," Pope Benedict told them as they stood in St Peter's Square.

Reflecting three of the four languages of Switzerland, he spoke in Italian, German and French.

Sacrifice

"This beautiful initiative... defended the person of the Supreme Pontiff until death, writing an important page of the history of the Church with their sacrifice," he told the men from his Vatican window.

With their mediaeval weapons, ceremonial armour and flamboyant Renaissance-style blue-, gold- and red-striped uniforms, the Guards are not only elite troops but also a popular tourist attraction.

The veterans joined active troops at the ceremony to mark the end of the 720 km trek from the Swiss town of Bellinzona in canton Ticino to St Peter's Square.

On Saturday, the Pope will celebrate a mass remembering the 147 Guards killed in the May 6, 1527 sacking of Rome. The surviving members saved the life of Pope Clement VII.

The mass will be followed by a swearing-in ceremony for new Guards, all Roman Catholics, who have completed their military service with the Swiss army.

This year's Swiss president, Moritz Leuenberger, will also attend the 500-year celebrations.

Permanent army

Pope Julius II, widely known as "The Warrior Pope", first sent for Swiss troops in the 16th century after striking an agreement with Swiss cantons for a permanent army.

Many of the Guards still carry the unit's trademark weapon - a halberd, which is a combination of spear and battleaxe.

"The Swiss Guard ... has become a testament to an era," said the unit's commander Elmar Mäder.

Three doctors accompanied the former Guards on the trek across the Alps and down the boot of Italy.

They reported that some of the veterans caught colds and suffered from some muscular problems but never gave up.

"After 28 days on foot it's nice to be in Rome," said Hans Osterwalder, a 49-year-old who served in the Guard until 1980.

swissinfo with agencies

Key facts

Around 70 former Swiss Guards took part in the 720km march from Bellinzona in southern Switzerland to Rome.
They followed a pilgrimage route and arrived in Rome on May 2, two days before they entered the gates of the Vatican.

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In brief

Mercenaries were one of Switzerland's most important exports from the late Middle Ages up until the 19th century.

It is estimated that as many as two million Swiss men swore their loyalty to foreign heads of state between 1250 and 1850.

There are currently 110 Swiss Guards on duty at the Vatican, where they must serve at least two years.

Guard recruits must be Roman Catholic Swiss nationals, between 19 and 30 years of age, single, high school graduates and at least 174cm tall. They must have also completed Swiss military service.

Guards on duty carry lances and either a halberd or lance, but are also armed with pepper spray, tear gas and – depending on the situation – automatic weapons.

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